The Clun Forest was a chairmaking area for hundreds of years until factory production and changes of fashion forced the last chairmakers out of business just before the turn of the last century.

Coppiced ash would be felled and cleaved in the woods in the autumn and winter by men working in pairs. Together they would fell the coppiced ash trees, cut the logs to size and cleave them - splitting them down the grain. This splitting, as logs would do naturally in time, releases the tension in the wood. This means the wood is unstressed and therefore does not warp as it dries. It shrinks back on itself.

One man would use a shaving horse and a draw blade, one of the oldest know tools, to take the edges off the cleft quarters before giving them to the other man on the pole lathe, an ancient tool first used by the Egyptians, to produce legs, stretchers, spindles and seat rails for the chairs.

The wood to be turned is firmly held between the poppet heads. The wood spins back and forth as the bodger operates the treadle. With each foreard spin of the wood, the bodger applies his chisel rounding the leg and cutting the familiar grooves and ridges. Because green wood is softer to work, it is possible to work a hard wood like ash in this way.

This picture was reproduced with permission from Emblem, publishers of The International Book of Wood.

In the earliest days the chairs would probably have been finished in the woods, with the seats being made of bark strips or rushes (segs) from the River Clun. But once the market towns of Bishop`s Castle and Clun had sawpits, plank seats could be made and fitted in town workshops. The chair pieces,seasoned during the summer by being left in airy stacks or threaded through hedges, would be brought down to the town chair makers.

A stack of legs and stretchers left in the woods to "season" over the summer.

Some times the pole lathe would be inside a make shift shed with the pole through the glass less window so work could carry on in bad weather.

In the towns the chair makers would re-turn the ends of the stretchers and spindles - they would have ovalled as they dried - and make the chairs without glue. The pieces were fitted so that any shrinking of the wood (by the thicker pieces which hadn't dried out completely) would tighten the joints. They would fit the seats of planked ash or sometimes elm.

On the left is a typical old Clun chair attributed to the Owen family of Clun - which continued to make these chairs longer than any other family in the area.

On the right is a more sophisticated ladder back carver with a rush seat.

These were the first ordinary people's chairs, after benches settles and stools, and very few makers made their mark on them. As more and more carpenting skills were acquired by the chair makers, the chairs became more sophisticated with ladder backs and square, rather than round, back seat joints.

Two Clun chairs.

A simple ladder back chair.

A ladder back carver with banner ladders.

The census of the 19th century shows these craftsmen were know as chairmakers and not cabinet makers, joiners or carpenters who worked with seasoned wood - it was a separate skill originating from the coppice crafts traditions which always used green wood.


1831 Thos.Richards
James Payne
1841 Samuel Medlicott, Church St.
Richard Green, Church St
Thomas Richards, Church St.
age 30
age 50
age 50
1851 Richard Green, Church St.
Thomas Richards & son
William Richards, Church St.
Samuel Medlicott, Horse Fair
Edward Bright, Welsh St.
age 43
age 66
age 20
age 41
age 36
grocer & chairmaker
1861 Edward Bright, Castle Green
Richard Green, Church St.
William Richards, Horse Fair
age 45
age 53
age 30
1871 William Richards, Horse Fair age 40 chairmaker
1881 William Richards, 32, Union St. age 50 chairmaker

At Old Time we repair old Clun and Bishop's Castle chairs, trying to keep as much of the original as possible. Very few of the chairs bear makers names or marks and so it is difficult to identify the maker and many have been left if attics or used as painting stools! Others have been lovingly cherished and held together with hand made nails or had extra pieces dowelled onto legs.

As originally they were not glued, we can prise some apart - not an easy task as the joints are made to tighten with age. Old repairs done with water solvent animals glues can be tackled without too much difficulty. But modern repairs with glues resistant to water can prove very trying.

Special thanks to Professor Bernard D. Cotton MA PhD, Regional Furniture Historian of the Regional Furniture Centre, High Wycombe Museum, Buckinghamshire.

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Last updated 18/7/01